Saint Augustine lived in the times of chaos brought about by the collapse of the Roman Empire. However, his purely religious observations will hit the spot in the times of market chaos, when shopping malls have become the temples of modernity.
Saint Augustine saw the Bible as the most important book ever written. Still, he did not turn a blind eye on a number of its blatant contradictions. Why should the almighty God confuse people? This question inspired the philosopher to seek a general reflection on language itself, the reflection which, it turns out, can be easily used for a host of much more down-to-earth situations than those described in the Bible. These being, for example, communication with your customers.
Firstly: people always want to say more than they actually say
For Augustine, the problem with the Bible was quite simple in fact: the perfect and almighty God versus miserable man with all his limitations and weaknesses. The Bible is therefore merely a manifestation of God’s will, external and imperfect and as such not fully accessible to people unless they open up to God’s mercy. Still, it is very unlikely that God himself should call you on your information line. How, then, does it all fit within the context of interpersonal communication?
Well, it fits there perfectly! According to Augustine, what we say or write is far less perfect than what we really aim to communicate. Just think about it for a moment: how many times have you not been able to name an emotion or find the right words to express some ideas? Our intentions (or, as Augustine would put it: inner word) can be understood only in a broader context and only if the recipient of our message is ready for it.
Henry Ford allegedly said that before being offered cars, his customers expected faster horses. To put it shortly: customers can say various things, but it does not mean that they know what they want or that they are absolutely right.
Secondly: if you want to know what your customers mean or want, listen to them humbly and with positive attitude
Sounds like a cliché, doesn’t it? In practice, however, things pose a far greater challenge. Just think how persistently corporate communication is based exclusively on mechanically processing data collected from questionnaires. What does it have to do with being humble? Is it not a glaring example of a narcissistic belief in your questionnaire being an ideal research tool?
Saint Augustine gave special importance to the commandment of love. Its practical application in business communication requires that you make sure that your customer is provided with optimal conditions for explaining what exactly he or she needs or expects. The very fact that you are simply available through Facebook clearly falls short of the mark. A simple example: how can one make a reasonable product enquiry if, in order to learn what it is that you really sell, they must first scroll through several pages of marketing gibberish and photos taken from stock?
And last, but not least: classical communication methods are still valid!
Saint Augustine was sceptical as to whether the contemporary rhetorical and philosophical knowledge would suffice to capture the essence of expression, which does not mean that he discredited them or belittled their significance. Augustine claimed that proper understanding of the Bible was based on two elements that he believed were of equal status: the intellectual investigation of its text based on human knowledge on the one hand and the irrational attitude permeated by faith and love shown to God on the other.
Believe it or not, all of the above holds true for business practice. If you think that the philosophy of this great Christian saint is a good excuse not to implement best communications practices in your company you should think twice! The point is not to seek short-cuts but to realise that the beaten track can be sometimes a bit bumpy too and there might be bumps that you should skillfully navigate around. Augustine made an attempt at reconciling two elements: the rational mind and the irrational heart. Today, many CEOs would go to any lengths to possess this knowledge, even if their underlying motives appear to be much more down-to-earth than those of the ancient saint.